Why it matters where your coffee comes from

28 November, 2017 by
Madeline Woolway

Green bean buyer Stephen Leighton wants everyone — business operator and consumer alike — to understand the human cost of coffee consumption.

“Every coffee bean has a story behind it,” Leighton tells Hospitality. “When I go to the butcher, I want to know where the meat I’m buying comes from [and the] same with vegetables.

Advertisement

“It’s really important for us to understand the human cost of getting the product into our cup.

“Everybody wants to be ethical and we demand it of our coffee roasters and shops. But no-one wants to pay $3.50 for an espresso. How’s the money going to get back to the growers?”

Advertisement

Leighton was in Australia to share his experiences as a green bean buyer as part of Toby’s Estate’s Knowledge Talks series. As managing director of Has Bean Coffee, Leighton travels extensively throughout the world’s coffee growing regions and works closely with producers, purchasing green coffee beans from them, which he then takes back to the UK to roast for Has Bean.

“My green bean buying is for my coffee roaster in the UK, but I’m a partner in a business in Ireland [3fe] that I also source for,” says Leighton. “In the past six months, I’ve started working with some small roasters, so I’m buying coffee for them now. I get the coffee in one container, get it to my base in the UK and then I’ll sell a little bit to other roasters, but it’s mainly for my company.”

Advertisement

Leighton’s role is just as much about connecting people as it is procuring quality coffee beans.

“I’m very much the voice of the producer,” says Leighton. “I’ve got one grower in Bolivia who is a subsistence grower; he has a wife and three children, doesn’t speak any English and doesn’t have a good route to market. I’m the voice for his coffee.”

Blurred lines

A lack of transparency about the growing process is the root of many of the industry’s problems, says Leighton.

“I think there are lots of misunderstandings and I think that’s the industry’s fault,” he says. “We’re all saying the same thing. We’re all saying we go to origin and find the best coffee. That can’t be true: we can’t all be doing the best sourcing.

“We have to start being quite honest about the difficulties we have, working in countries like Bolivia or Rwanda or Burundi, which are all really difficult places to do business. Transparency is the key; we need to be much more transparent in the industry.”

The information highway is a two-way street. Not only does Leighton aim to communicate the challenges faced by growers to coffee drinkers, he also feeds consumer trends back to them and connects farmers with each other.

“I work with lots of farmers and will often introduce them to each other,” says Leighton. “I’m not an expert in agronomy and coffee husbandry, but I know people who are. I see my job as being the link between everybody — not to be the teacher, but to be the facilitator.”

The problem, according to Leighton, is most people involved in the coffee industry (roasters, baristas, drinkers) aren’t truly aware of the difficulties growers come up against.

“They’re not [aware]. And again, that’s my fault,” he says. “It’s the role of green buyers to share information about the places.”

Changing the status quo

Proving how serious he is about providing a platform for growers, Leighton spent the first half of 2017 writing a book, Coffeeography — The Coffee Producers, which details the plights of growers from several regions. What started with the story of one contact — a third generation coffee farmer who had trained as a nurse — developed into an exploration of many.

“I thought, ‘Hang on, these stories should be out there for people to know and understand. Why don’t I do it?’”

It’s no easy task, and conveying such a complex message is also a concern.

“It’s never just one thing,” says Leighton. “There are so many different issues and every country has its own set of circumstances.”

Many coffee growing regions — including Bolivia, Rwanda and Burundi — are politically unstable, making them intense places for both farmers and buyers to do business.

Operating a UK-based business has led Leighton to come up against some specific economic challenges, too.

“Brexit has meant the pound became weak against the US dollar and all our coffee is purchased in US dollars,” he says. “That’s put a 15 to 20 percent premium on all our purchases. We find it hard to pass that on to consumers, but we also want to pay more money to our growers.”

Spreading the message

While everyone from green bean buyers to roasters and baristas can try to educate themselves and consumers on these issues, negative messages aren’t always the best means.

The goal is to create a system that benefits everyone: one that gives consumers access to better quality coffee, and give producers better prices, sustainable long-term relationships with buyers and an opportunity to plan for the future. Creating a good news story is a more palatable way to inform people, but some won’t want to hear it either way.

“Some people just want you to make them a delicious coffee,” says Leighton. “All they want to know is that you’re worried about the details and that you’re making sure the producers are being looked after.”

Roasters and baristas can take the initiative and become educated on the provenance of their coffee and the stories of the growers. So when a question is asked, they’ll be ready with a meaningful answer.